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mountain range


France - The Pyrenees mountain range

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marker at introduction
map: Pyrénées mountain range
marker at Pyrenees national park -
parc national des Pyrénées
snow and other webcams
the Pic du Midi
marker at in the foothills
marker at on the plains
marker at Andorra
marker at bibliography
marker at end notes

other documents about the Pyrénées


The Pyrénées mountain range separates two nations: France and Spain. You can go around the mountains at either end - from Bilbao and San Sebastien to Hendaye and Biarritz on the west, and from Barcelona to Perpignan on the east - and there are also passes, cols in French, to cross over the top of this spectacular range of ancient stone.

The Pyrenees were formed by the land masses of France and Spain being pushed together and buckling over and under.[4] This range of mountains stretches for 267 miles, or 430 kilometres to make a natural border.

The mountains are etched by rivers, tumbling down the slopes, making deep valleys that partition the high ‘ribs’ extending from the massive ‘spine’ of this mountain range. Several of these valleys are labelled in the second map below that shows the Pyrenees National Park. These are Vallée d’Aspe - Aspe Valley, Vallée d’Ossau - Ossau Valley, Vallée d’Arrens - the Arrens Valley, Vallée de Cauterets - Cauterets Valley, Vallée de Luz - Luz Valley, Vallée d’Aure - Aure Valley.

Until recent times, there were variations in culture between the valleys, because of little communications occuring over the mountain ‘ribs and ‘spine’. This is a common effect of mountains, where micro-environments tend to increase species variation, and forms barriers between nations and tribes.

This page, and further supplementary pages under preparation, will look at the Pyrenees not yet discussed in other documents about the Pyrenean region. In general, is starting from the west and progressing eastwards.

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The Pyrenees mountain range, with   French departments The département of Les Landes The département of Pyrénées-Atlantiques click for Pyrenees National park map click for Pyrenees National park map


new! Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours  Cathedrale Saint-Gatien at Tours

Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France updated: Romanesque churches and cathedrals in south-west France

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the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
the fire at the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris
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Stone tracery in church and cathedral construction illustrated
stone in church and cathedral construction

stained glass and cathedrals in Normandy illustrated graph

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cathedral labyrinths and mazes in France
using metal in gothic cathedral construction

Germans in France
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on first arriving in France - driving
France is not England
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France’s western isles: Ile de Ré
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the forest as seen by Francois Mauriac, and today
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New translation, the Magna Carta

Pyrenees national park -
parc national des Pyrénées

Much of the Pyrenean heights of Hautes-Pyrénées [Département 65] is a National Park, protected from construction and touristic over-use, with a peripheral area extending into the foothills.

Here, even though you are unlikely to see the animals themselves, there are many signs of both supporters and opposers of the local larger fauna - bears and wolves. Unfortunately, just a few years ago, the last genetically indigeous Pyrenean female bear was shot by a local farmer. The male cub survived at the time. Now, brown bears from Slovenia are gradually being introduced. These have bred so there are now about 15 Slovenian brown bears in the central part of the Pyrenees, with four native bears in the Aspe valley. Wolves are said to kill sheep put out to summer pastures. However, our understanding is the shepherds no longer wtach daily, or nightly, over their flocks so there might be some sympathy for the wild, rather than the domesticated, animals.

There are also two national parks in the Spanish Pyrenees: Aigüestortes i Estany de Sant Maurici National Park and Ordesa y Monte Perdido National Park.

Map - Pyrenees National Park

The Pyrenees National Park is shared with many holiday resorts specialising in snow sports, particularly skiing and, now, snowboarding. The towns, like Cauterets, Gedre or Gavarnie, may be at the edge of the national park but the ski slopes are high in the National Park, accessed by cable cars, or buckets on a wire, as they are sometimes described!


Gavarnie is a base for walking in high mountains, admiring the spectacular scenery, the jewel- like flowers, the soaring eagles. You might even see a marmoset guarding its burrow. The Cirque de Garvarnie is a two-hour walk from the village, or you can ride up on a mule. For more experienced walkers, the High Pyrenean Walking Route follows the heights, with refuges for overnight stops.Old postcard showing the Breach of Roland

Cirque de Gavarnie is a famous example of a cirque in the central Pyrenees, in the Pyrenees National Park. The cirque is 800m wide (on the deepest point) and about 3000m wide at the top. It incorporates seventeen peaks that are over 3,000 metres, with the highest waterfall in Europe at 423 metres - the Gavarnie Falls.

A major feature of the cirque is La Brèche de Roland (Roland’s Breach, also called the Roncevaux Pass), supposedly created by Roland, a nephew of Charlemagne. According to legend, Roland owned a sword reputed to be indestructable, that had previously belonged to Hector of Troy. To prevent the sword falling into the hands of the Sarasens, Roland attempted to destroy it by hacking at the rocks. He managed to cut a gap 40 metres wide and 100 metres high.


Like Gavarnie, Cauterets is walking territory during the warmer months, but during the colder parts of the year, Cauterets is a major skiing resort, for both cross-country and downhill skiing, with cable-cars up to the pistes running all through the day, and visible from town centre hotels.

As well as being a ski resort, Cauterest is also a spa town. The thermal springs contain sulphur and sodium silicate, being used to treat respiratory and skin diseases, as well as rheumatism and other complaints.

A local speciality are the flavoured boiled sweets, berlingots [the name refers to the shape of the sweet]. These are made in several sweet shops in the town, and you can watch the stages in making striped boiled sweets - a quite extraordinary process. As well as being able to buy bags and boxes of mixtures that you’ve chosen, from at least one shop it is possible to order and have sweets sent to your home.

Back to skiing - some ski slopes are monitored by webcams, so visitors can check the weather conditions before setting out to ski.





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snow and other webcams

There are a number of cameras filming both resort towns and the skiing pistes at several places in the Pyrénées.

Snowcam logo!For example, there are five cameras showing the pistes above Cauterets and one of the town. [You need to have Java installed in your web browser.] The cams repeat a half-minute recording, with the recording being updated roughly every half hour to hour during daylight hours (the camera for Cauterets town continues to operate after dark).

the Pic du Midi de Bigorre

The Pic du Midi cable-car.In 1873, a weather station was set up on the Col de Sencours, below the Pic de Midi. The foundation stone for the Observatory was laid five years later. This Observatory, now listed natural site, has been opened to the public since 2000. Thus, it is visitable, providing you do not mind riding in “a bucket on a string” [a cable car]. The trip starts at 1 800 metres. Fifteen minutes later, you reach the Observatory at an altitude of 2,877 metres for a two-hour visit.

Here are the most spectacular views across the snow-topped Pyrenees to the plains southern France and north to the Massif Central foothills. There is a museum and discovery area where you can understand the astronmical research being done with the three telescopes, including a solar telescope. There is also a restaurant, a snack bar and a gift shop. Visitors should take both warm clothing and sun glasses, and take account of being almost 1.8 miles higher than sea level.

See also Pic du Midi - observing space clearly for much more detail and many illustrations.

marker at in the foothills


The most prominent feature used to be the fortified castle which rises up from the centre of the town on a rocky escarpment. However, with the burgeoning Christian fervour and attraction of this town, there are now many religous edifices to compete for attention.

Lourdes has the second greatest number of hotels in France after Paris with about 270 establishments. After alleged apparitions of “Our Lady of Lourdes” to Bernadette Soubirous in 1858, Lourdes has developed into a major place of Christian pilgrimage. This year, 2008, is the 150th anniversary of her ‘visions’.


Pau is birthplace of Henry IV of France. His mother was Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre, whose family titles included Navarre and Béarn as well as the countdom of Foix, and whose vast teritories included much of Les Landes and extended around Agen, to Périgord and to the viscomtdom of Limoges. Jeanne converted to Huguenot Protestantism in 1560, seven years after the birth of Henry. Henry of Navarre became the first Protestant to become king of France, after converting to Catholicism, supposedly with the comment, “Paris vaut bien une messe” - “Paris is well worth a mass”.

English travellers came to Pau from the late 18th century, to enjoy its climate and healthy air, encouraged by Wellington, who had left a garrison at Pau on his way into Spain during the Peninsular War against Napoleon I. Holidaying British, who came even before the railroad was built, made their mark with the scenic Boulevard des Pyrenées, the first full 18-hole golf course in Europe (laid out in between 1856 to 1860, and still existing), and a real tennis court.

Napoleon III refurbished the château, and there are streets of Belle Époque architecture, built before Biarritz become the fashionable resort. Pau is a major winter sports centre, and equestrian events such as a famous steeplechase are held there.

Pau’s prosperity is now based on helicopter manufacturer Turbomeca, as well as tourism and agriculture. The French fossil fuel company, Elf Aquitaine, is based at Pau.


Cathedral at Sant-Bertrand-de-Comminges

Saint-Bertrand-de-Comminges, known as the cathedral of the Pyrenees, is a glorious and beautiful little city with nigh on ten centuries of history. Buried in the Pyrenees mountain range, the city and the cathedral have a long history. The town is remarkably well-preserved, but now has shrunk to a population of about two hundred from the teeming thirty thousand of the early first millennium.

marker at on the plains


The medieval walled city of Carcasonne
The medieval walled city of Carcasonne

In the departement of Aude is a complete, restored, fortified town that is a Unesco World Heritage site. Later made notorious by being used a set in the Hollywood film, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, the fortified cité of Carcassonne fell into such disrepair that the French government decided that it should be demolished.

A decree to that effect that was made official in 1849 caused an uproar. The antiquary and mayor of Carcassonne, Jean-Pierre Cros-Mayrevieille, and the writer Prosper Mérimée, the first inspector of ancient monuments, led a campaign to preserve the fortress as a historical monument. The architect Eugène Viollet Le-Duc was commissioned to renovate the place. However, his restoration was not of very authentic, using slates for the roof (as in northern France), with roof designs more suitable for snow, rater than the hot southern climate. Restoration started in 1853. The fortress was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1997.

marker at Andorra

View over one of the wild west shopping towns in Andorra.
View over one of the wild west shopping towns in Andorra.

Surrounded by both Spain and France is the independent country of Andorra (or Andorre), straddling part of the Pyrenees mountians. As well as being a beautiful place to visit, with its high hills and valleys, Andorra is well-known for its low tax regimes, including not charging value added tax, unlike mebers of the European Community.

The towns, particularly those near the frontiers, are populated by many, many duty free shops selling food, clothes and above all, electronic and photographic goods. Although there is little or no tax in Andorra, visitors might want to take account that there could well be import taxes when crossing the border to Spain or France. There, custom officers are very visible, keeping an eye on things, but it is not entirely clear what might be their reason for stopping a vehicle. Perhaps for, say, the French customs it might be a foreign (to France) car entering their country from Andorra. The customs nosies are looking for those they suspecting evading V.A.T. (valued added tax - TVA in France, TPI in Spain).

Marker at


The Pyrenees by Hilaire Belloc
with forty-six sketches by the author and twenty-two maps
The Pyrenees by Hilaire Belloc

Methuen and Co., 1909, hbk, 340 pages

"The only object of this book is to provide, for those who desire as I do as I have done in the Pyrenees, a general knowledge of the mountains in which they propose to travel."
My chief regret is that the book will necessarily be too bulky to carry in the pocket; for it is meant to be not so much a lively as an accurate companion to the general exploration of those high hills which have given me so much delight."
[Preface, The Pyrenees]



end notes

  1. Département
    the above is the French way of spelling the word that Anglo-Saxons spell as department. Here at, we use both spellings when describing the French administrative department, which is fairly equivalent to an American state or British county.

  2. For a map of the modern départements of France, see the map at the France Zone.

  3. The French and the English spell compound words and phrases, such as Pyrenees Atlantiques and Pays Basque differently from us Anglo-Saxons. Also note that the French also often pronounce words somewhat differently: dropping final consonants in many instances, being more meticulous to pronounce each vowel with a clearly different sound, and usually pronouncing every syllable.
    At, we tend to ring the changes between French and English spellings, and even sometimes use a mixture, as in Basqueland!

    But why is the French version of Pyrenees Atlantiques spelt Pyrénées-atlantiques, and why does Pays Basque not have an ‘s’ at the end of the second word?
    Pyrénées-atlantiques: In French, with a double-barreled word, the second word matches the first word on whether it is singular or plural. In French, the Pyrenees is a plural word - the collective noun for that range of mountains, so the accompanying adjective (describing word: Atlantique) also ends in ‘s’. In French, the second word in a hyphenated compound noun is written in lower case. This is why ‘atlantiques’ is in lower case.
    Pays Basque: In French, the word for country, le pays, is singular. Thus the accompanying adjective, Basque, is also given as the singular, that is without an ‘s’ at the end.

  4. Pyrenees - you wanna get technical? Go look around this site!

  5. Col
    A mountain pass between two peaks. A col could also be a gap in a mountain ridge. The Breech de Roland near Gavarnie is one such col.
    French for a mountain summit.
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The Pic du Midi Observatory - observing space clearly